If you’re lost, all you need to navigate is to look up at the night sky. Look for Polaris, the North Star. The Big Dipper. Orion’s Belt. The constellations were identified long ago by northern astronomers and their names and meanings made famous through story. But for those of us in the southern hemisphere, it’s a different story, a different world, yet with the same map. For one thing the night sky in the southern hemisphere is a bright mess of stars, from the Milky Way and other galaxies, seemingly impossible to pick apart. For another, the constellations sort of appear upside down, if they appear at all (good luck trying to find the Big Dipper).
Having a sense where you are isn’t just a matter of knowing the stars. And relying on old maps and old names to describe a different view of the world isn’t just for astronomers. There’s a curious parallel, where linguistics, the environment, and culture intersect: consider the toponym or the place name. Toponymy is a little-studied branch of linguistics which nevertheless holds a lot of the answers to how we situate ourselves in the world—where are we, and how do we tell others what we have seen here? It’s all in the history of the place name. Indeed, without the stars, whimsical linguists might be able to navigate their way around by place name, up hill and down dale, as long as they understand its etymology. But what happens when the name comes from another place, or from a borrowed language, with no bearing on the new landscape?
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